Let Plain Language Work for You

Poor communication is often at the core of most problems. The use of plain language can lead to better understanding and inclusiveness.

ARTICLE | Jan 18, 2019
by Matthew Vanderhorst, Community and Information Services Director, City of Montgomery, OH
Speaking in Plain Language

It’s 8:00 a.m. and your coffee is starting to kick in. You check your email for the first time in the day. You see several messages, but you think to yourself, “no big deal, that’s common”. Then you see it. The message with a vague subject line from a co-worker from whom you are expecting an important email. This co-worker lives for words. You know it’s going to be one big wall of words. You read the email once, twice, then you close it to clear your head and go get more coffee.

How many times has this happened to you? Plain language can help governments communicate more clearly with its customers, both internal and external. Plain language can also reduce the number of phone calls and questions if the information is easy to understand. Lastly, plain language can make it easier to communicate with people of various language backgrounds and physical abilities.

What is plain language?

Simply put, plain language helps readers and listeners do the following:

  1. Quickly find what they need
  2. Understand information the first time
  3. Use what they read or hear, then act

What plain language is not

Many people have the mistaken idea that plain language is unprofessional. This is not the case. Some common misunderstandings about plain language include the following:

  1. That it’s “folksy”
  2. That it’s “dumbing down” language
  3. That it’s writing to a specific grade level

How to use plain language

Many times, you don’t have to rewrite your content. Restructuring it may increase reading comprehension. Here are some common plain language techniques.

  1. Use short sentences which lead to shorter paragraphs.
  2. Use headings and lists to break out main points.
  3. Use pronouns such as I, me, us, and we to speak directly to the reader.
  4. Use active, not passive voice.

Active voice is clear and concise. Writing in passive voice is difficult for a reader to understand because it’s hard to determine who is performing the act. Passive voice also sounds bureaucratic. Which one of the following examples is easier to read?

  1. “Consultation from residents was obtained to determine the direction.”
  2. “We consulted with residents to determine the direction.”

The first example may sound more impressive, but you probably had to read it twice to understand it. The second example is much easier to understand the first time you read it.

This information is nothing new to many of us. What’s less understood is how plain language can help improve inclusion and search.

Plain Language Improves Voice Search

Voice assistants on smartphones and devices such as Amazon Alexa make it easier to communicate using voice command. Properly structured text using plain language principles such as headings, lists, and common words ensures that a search retrieves important content. The following sentence is from our code of ordinances.

“A bicycle may be equipped with a device capable of giving an audible signal, except that a bicycle shall not be equipped with nor shall any person use upon a bicycle any siren or whistle.”

What would come back to me if I said “Alexa, can I have a whistle on my bike in Montgomery?” We might have more success with the following sentences.

“Bicycles and bicycle riders may use bells or other approved audible devices. Bicycles and bicycle riders cannot use a siren or whistle.”

Plain Language Supports Inclusion

Many people rely on electronic devices to communicate in a format that they can understand. The visually impaired rely on screen readers to get information from their computer or phone. Remember the previous bicycle example from our code of ordinances? Imagine reading or listening to an entire paragraph written that way. That is a great way to turn away your reader and give them a terrible headache. You can also be certain a questioning phone call or email is on the way.

The cultural demographics in Montgomery have changed dramatically over the past two decades. The local school district hosts children from more than 40 nations. English is not the first language for many of them or their families. It is easier for them to understand and learn English if it’s written using plain language principles. If they use a translator, the content will be easier to translate, retain the original meaning and reduce confusion.

The City of Montgomery plans to apply plain language concepts to the City’s website and integrate automatic translation. This technology is already available through tools such as Google Translate, but well-written content will help ensure success.

To learn more about plain language, visit https://www.plainlanguage.gov.

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